Barely a week into the new school year, I was copied into an email that would thrill any working mother in what sociologists like to call a “traditional” heterosexual relationship. My husband was corresponding with another parent to make carpool arrangements for our respective children to get home from their Monday afternoon drama class.
But, here’s the clincher: I wasn’t being asked to get involved in any way, shape or form …. simply to note that one of my children would be driven home by the other parent every other week. The intervening weeks would be covered by, wait for it, my husband. I didn’t need to identify this particular gap in child transport, initiate a plan to address it, or follow through. Nada, nothing.
Oh wait, there’s more. This isn’t a one off. My husband does this kind of thing all the time. In fact, he does it most of the time, despite holding down a very busy job. So, when my husband recently quipped on a holiday that I was in danger of becoming “emotionally unemployed”, I had to admit that maybe he had a point.
Having recently discovered the concept of “emotional labour” after I wrote a column paying tribute to his enormous capacity to do it, it dawned on him that perhaps he did more than me.
So yes, I have achieved a win for women everywhere… a male specimen who should be studied by scientists.
A man who truly gets it, so much so that he even resents his perceived disproportionate burden of emotional labour — as do the vast majority of women who, statistics tell us, are far more likely to be carrying a disproportionate percentage of this particular burden.
But seriously, the debate around emotional labour has indeed sharpened over the last few years. Women are clearly fed up, giving rise to numerous viral essays on the topic and a number of best-selling books. But in amongst all the entirely legitimate rage and resentment, the challenge remains to get men to truly appreciate what the concept of emotional labour means and why the women in their lives are seething with resentment.
When I was chatting to a friend about this recently, she wisely observed that many men don’t “see” the unequal distribution of emotional labour the same way they might see other more “outrageous” (in their view) manifestations of gender inequality. Many men believe in their minds, she observed, that they are doing their fair share. Or they say things like, “I’ll do it if you ask me”, which is entirely beside the point. Many don’t really understand it until they have walked a mile in a woman’s emotionally laden shoes, and how often does that happen, my circumstances notwithstanding?
How can women individually and collectively progress the conversation around the vexed issue of emotional labour with the men in their lives and move forward?
The answer to that may, at least partly, lie in a new study in the American Sociological Review, “The Cognitive Dimension of Household Labour” by Allison Daminger, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology and social policy at Harvard University with a particular interest in applying concepts and tools developed by behavioural scientists to questions of inequality.
Daminger interviewed 70 college-educated, married parents of young children about their non-work related activity in the household including the “cognitive” aspects of it (what the rest of us call “emotional labour”). And when she sorted through the hundreds of examples of cognitive labour that emerged, she found four primary activities appeared over and over: anticipating a need, identifying options for filling it, deciding among the options, and monitoring the results.
But – and here’s the most interesting bit — when she looked at how gender correlated with the types of cognitive activities men and women conducted, she found that women were disproportionately more likely to take the lead in anticipating upcoming needs and monitoring outcomes, but identification work was more evenly split or shared, and decision making work was overwhelmingly a collaborative activity.
So, it’s not that men aren’t doing any emotional labour, it’s just that they’re not doing certain, more time consuming, aspects of it.
Daminger theorised, “that men enjoy some of the power associated with decision-making—and received participation ‘credit’ from their wives—without putting in the prep work required to reach the decision stage….and that’s significant because the prep work is a particularly onerous form of cognitive labour in terms of its invisibility and potential to distract from other tasks.”
The solution, according to Daminger’s research, suggests that there may well be something in my sage friend’s observation that the challenge lies in making the unseen seen, particularly the “anticipation” aspect of emotional labour.
“A good starting point would be for couples to include cognitive tasks on their household “balance sheet,” factoring nonphysical work into their assessment of whether each partner is pulling their weight,” suggests Daminger.
If you’re struggling to figure out how that might work in practice, enter Eve Rodsky, whose new book, “Fair Play: A Game Changing Solution For When You Have Too Much To Do (And More Life to Live)” puts Daminger’s theory into practice.
Rodsky, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has a background in organisational management, has “gamified” the average family household, developing cards to represent dozens of household chores and responsibilities that constitute the “invisible” work that goes into running a home. Domestic partners are instructed to deal the cards out, ensuring an equitable division of labour.
But when you draw a particular card, you have to oversee the entire “CPE”, that’s the “conceiving, planning, and execution” of each task. No shirking. No choosing the bits and pieces you like, or those that give you a sense of power without doing the hard yards.
To my mind, even if Rodsky’s card game doesn’t catch on, this more nuanced understanding of the various aspects of emotional labour and the concept of “CPE” may prove transformative, becoming common parlance in the developing debate, and countless individual discussions, about emotional labour.
And while that may not lead women to a life of emotional unemployment, it may help them find a way to whittle emotional labour down to a part-time gig.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica